If Men Would Only Use Their Ears
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Veda Hille - “The Ballad of Marie Sanders”

Her name is not altogether unknown to listeners in Canada, and even some abroad - including XTC’s Andy Partridge, who put out her last album on his new Ape label. But Veda Hille’s renown, 11 albums along since she began making songs in 1990, is decidedly diminutive relative to her talent... By dint of which she ought to be able to do her grocery shopping in her Vancouver neighbourhood borne on the shoulders of throngs of admirers, trailed by elephants and a brass band.

And what is talent? It isn’t skill or ideas - those are only skill and ideas. Talent is a touch, a trace of inimitability. In each Veda Hille song it is as if swift stubby fingers are unthreading needled perceptions and looping them into multidimensional knots, small-motor miracles too microscopic for the mind’s eye - playing cat’s cradle with string theory. Usually while her hands also ply a piano, organ, tenor guitar or banjo. Yet she also seems, as in a fable, to be acquiring new talents by the year: One season she has the power of undetectable stealth; the next she comes along effortlessly waterwalking and wind-riding. And a talent is like a self, so she is becoming ever more populous. Once, Veda wrote a sort of “folk” music that might fairly have been compared with Fiona Apple or, perhaps, Sam Phillips. Since then she has made albums of mangled electronics, a suite about the Yukon, another about Emily Carr, songs about science, an album for children (with the group Duplex), music for theatre, rowdy cabaret rock and transcriptions of birdsong. A decade hence she might be the Olympic women’s wrestling champion, or demonstrating how spiderwebs might be used to restore rude health to the seas.

Like many writers, Veda has spent some months mistressing herself to Bertolt Brecht. This live recording from 2002 is one of the offspring of that affair, a cover of a Brecht-Eisler song about the Nuremberg laws, which she sings as both a woodcut of medieval lynchings and a live video of a police beating. I don’t mean anything snotty by posting it on the fourth of July, but it’s always instructive to hear the song’s conclusion: “God above, if men would only use their ears/ They would know who does what and to whom.”

Veda Hille - “The Cats that Live in the Berlin Graveyard that Houses Brecht and Eisler”

And here is its sibling. The production on Veda’s latest album, The Return of the Kildeer, doesn’t always delight me, or rather I should say that it steadfastly holds back from the sort of attention-grabbing flourishes that would promote my (and Andy Partridge’s) ambitions on her behalf. But in this short piece the other yields of the approach are abundant. As she sings the imagined dialogue of the felines who play among the once-East-German graves of the great poet-playwright and his musical collaborator, she places the accidents of history in their grandly humble context: “It is only living/ another creature gone.” Her voice is filtered, since what she is verbalizing here is the non-verbal, representing another kind of consciousness. Yet toward the end of the piece humanity almost literally wanders back in, as her untreated voice begins to sing, hum and whistle absently along. It's as if she - like Brecht and Eisler and all us mortals - just happened to be passing through briefly, only partly paying attention. Thus the song is a tribute to fallen idols that also challenges our shortsighted species' habit of hero worship, through a contrast that is itself a Brechtian effect. And in the end the cats have gotten Brecht's gist (live unbeclouded!) more than the songwriter on her own, inevitably more self-concerned, cultural pilgrimage. This mindfulness of the non-human is a signal aspect of Veda’s writing. If only we had more such singers of atheist hymns.

[Buy here or there/ Also, MySpace: I particularly recommend listening to the song "Plants" there.]

Posted by Carl Wilson at July 4, 2006 6:19 AM

Dang, Carl, great write-up. Maybe after you're done with your Celine book you can write one on Veda!


Posted by john at July 4, 2006 8:44 PM

Lovely to see a thoughtful and articulate piece on perhaps our most thoughtful and articulate songwriter. But I wouldn't use the word "atheist" for veda. I'd go with catholic. Small "c." All-embracing.

Posted by John Samson at July 5, 2006 2:00 AM

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